Sunday, March 19, 2017

American Pastoral

One meaning of the word pastoral is "a work of literature portraying an idealized version of country life. In his Pulitzer prizewinning American Pastoral (1997), Philip Roth states that to him the secular American Thanksgiving is the American Pastoral. There is meant to be a moratorium on all grievances and resentments. Everyone is meant to be full of thanks for blessings received, and ought to be exuding good will towards everyone. This is the ideal: part of the ideology of the American Dream; of how the earliest Pilgrim Fathers shared their first Thanksgiving Dinner, in 1621, with the First Peoples, who had helped them settle at Plymouth. The last part of the book is a Thanksgiving Dinner, and tells of what is really happening in the mind of the chief character, The Swede.

In his book, Philip Roth is demonstrating that reality is something different from the meaning he gives to his title.  It is concerned with the grudges held by Swede's daughter, Merry, against him, and against her country. Brought up in a privileged family, she had become indoctrinated by the philosophy of Communism to see the world through the economic system of Socialism. Merry was against Capitalism, meaning private ownership of business, and the Vietnamese War being fought against the Communist North Vietnamese.

She hasn't bought into the American Dream, even although her family had been part of it. Her immigrant grandfather had founded a successful glove factory, and her father had inherited it. She didn't see her grandfather and father as the epitome of the American Dream, even although they had worked hard to establish the business which had provided jobs for many people and helped create the United States. She didn't agree with the idea that the government of the States had felt obligated to help the South Vietnamese when they asked for help against the Communist North Vietnamese who were invading their country.

She expressed her hatred for everything the Unites States stands for by bombing the local store, in the process killing a local man. By this act, she destroys her family and the pleasant life her grandfather and father had worked so hard to provide.

This book could be seen as a case study for so many families who find themselves in a similar position. One of their members hates them so much they would do them, and their country, harm. It is a universal question, and can be given so many different colorations.

The big question we are left with by American Pastoral is why? Can a young person be so indoctrinated by an ideology, either secular or religious, that they will be motivated to attack innocent people? We are left having to consider this question. A very uncomfortable subject, but a brilliant book, by a brilliant author.

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